Author Conversation: Angeline Boulley talks with Cynthia Leitich Smith

By Gayleen Rabakukk

At the recent Texas Library Association Conference, authors Angeline Boulley, interviewed by Cynthia Leitich Smith, headlined the closing keynote. The authors appeared in conversation, discussing books, writing, and their shared love of libraries. I’m thrilled to share highlights from their conversation with our Cynsations readers.

Angeline’s latest book is Warrior Girl, Unearthed (Henry Holt & Co., May 2, 2023). From the promotional copy:

Perry Firekeeper-Birch has always known who she is – the laidback twin, the troublemaker, the best fisher on Sugar Island. Her aspirations won’t ever take her far from home, and she wouldn’t have it any other way. But as the rising number of missing Indigenous women starts circling closer to home, as her family becomes embroiled in a high-profile murder investigation, and as greedy grave robbers seek to profit off of what belongs to her Anishinaabe tribe, Perry begins to question everything.

In order to reclaim this inheritance for her people, Perry has no choice but to take matters into her own hands. She can only count on her friends and allies, including her overachieving twin and a charming new boy in town with unwavering morals. Old rivalries, sister secrets, and botched heists cannot – will not – stop her from uncovering the mystery before the ancestors and missing women are lost forever.

Cynthia and Angeline’s conversation happened in a large ballroom at the Austin Convention Center. Giant projection screens gave the entire audience a good seat.

Cynthia: Let’s start with home. What does Sugar Island mean to you personally and to your writing?

Angeline: It’s a grounding place, it’s where my Dad was born. It feels like I’m part of the Earth there, and it connects me to my culture.

Do you begin with setting? With character, subject matter, or theme? What sparks your stories?

With Firekeeper’s Daughter (Henry Holt & Co., 2021), I spent ten years writing and revising, but with Warrior Girl, Unearthed, Perry literally popped into my head fully formed.

Angeline shared how she’d been out for a run and heard Perry speak to her. She said she ducked into a coffee shop to get the voice down before it disappeared.

Native writing isn’t just about content, it’s also about worldview framing literary style. For example, we tend to have larger casts and intergenerational ones. Would you say that’s true for your books, and if so, why do you think it is?

I think of myself as a storyteller. Even Daunis shares teaching through story. Story is how we learn to be Ojibwe. Firekeeper’s Daughter starts in the east and uses the medicine wheel as a cultural framework for telling the story.

With secondary characters, I think of my community. Elders are not just window dressing. They are integral to the story and to life. I see the need for these secondary characters. Some serve as cautionary tales, while others are guideposts.

What did writing your first novel teach you that helped you write your second?

I did so much research for Firekeeper’s Daughter, and so much of that research is below the surface.

With Warrior Girl, Unearthed, I became a person who plots. I have a twenty-page Excel spreadsheet outlines my book. It took one year to write. But the characters still surprised me and took me places I didn’t expect.

I believe in listening to the idea that won’t let go of you.

With the second book, I learned to trust myself a lot more. I was starting with a toolbelt full of [writing] tools that I didn’t have with the first book.

Why are Native teenage girls the heroes of your fiction?

It was a formative time for me. My daughter was a preteen when I started writing Firekeeper’s Daughter, and I wanted a book for her to read as a teen. That’s a powerful age…where you’re finding your voice, making mistakes, and figuring out how to move forward in life.

How much of you is Daunis or Perry?

In high school, I was a lot like Daunis, especially her identity issues. I didn’t feel like I fit in on the reservation or in my hometown.

I was never anything like Perry. She was definitely a breath of fresh air and a delight to write.

What would you like to say to the librarians here who’ve gathered for professional development, community building, and to lift up voices like yours in the world of books?

You are literal lifesavers. The library was always a place where I felt like I did belong. Libraries were like a sanctuary for me.

What’s next for you and your writing?

With Firekeeper’s Daughter, there was fire. With Warrior Girl, there’s earth. Now, I’m working on a story based on air.

I’ll keep writing young adult because it’s such a fascinating age span.

The takeaway I want all readers to have is that Native Americans are leading modern, vibrant lives. I write in the present tense because it’s a way of saying, “I am here.”

Cynsations Notes

Angeline and Cynthia will both be speaking at the Gaithersburg Book Festival at 12:15 p.m. on Saturday, May 20.

Author Angeline Boulley, photo by Marcella Hadden

Angeline Boulley, an enrolled member of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians, is a storyteller who writes about her Ojibwe community in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. She is a former Director of the Office of Indian Education at the U.S. Department of Education. Angeline lives in southwest Michigan, but her home will always be on Sugar Island.

Firekeeper’s Daughter, her debut novel, was an instant #1 NYT Bestseller. The book has been named the Walter Dean Myers Award for Outstanding Children’s Literature, the Printz Award, the William C. Morris award for YA debut literature, and was an American Indian Youth Literature Award Honor Book. Her second book, Warrior Girl Unearthed is available now.

Cynthia Leitich Smith (Muscogee citizen) is a NYT bestselling author and was named the 2021 NSK Neustadt Laureate. Her novel Hearts Unbroken won an American Indian Youth Literature Award. Her debut tween novel Rain Is Not My Indian Name was named one of the 30 Most Influential Children’s Books of All Time by Book Riot, which also listed her among 10 Must-Read Native American Authors.

Her recent books include Ancestor Approved: Intertribal Stories For Kids, an ALA Notable Book and winner of the Reading of the West Book Award for Young Readers, as well as Sisters Of The Neversea, which received six starred reviews and made numerous “best of the year” lists. Her 2023 release is the YA novel Harvest House, an Indigenous ghost mystery, which has so far received three starred reviews and is an Editor’s Pick. Cynthia is the author-curator of Heartdrum, an imprint of HarperChildren’s and was the inaugural Katherine Paterson Chair at the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA program.

Gayleen Rabakukk holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts and an undergraduate degree in Journalism from the University of Central Oklahoma. She has published numerous newspaper and magazine articles, and two regional interest books for adults. She is a board member of Lago Vista’s Friends of the Library and an Austin SCBWI volunteer. She loves inspiring curiosity in young readers through stories of hope and adventure.